Monday, April 23, 2012

Is Online Learning Where it's at?

Last year I applied to be a part of a select group of teachers in my district to compose and administer online courses. I was accepted into a group of highly motivated educators to collaborate and implement online courses for the upcoming school year. Needless to say, it hasn't exactly gone as planned.

To begin with, the leadership changed hands over the summer. The opening session of our "training" for this program was spent convincing us that this venture was worthwhile. In many of our minds, it was wasted time because all of us were already convinced that online learning was something that needed to be explored for our district, or we wouldn't have applied in the first place. We also had a panel of teachers from an area district who had already unveiled their online courses. It was insightful to an extent, although they were targeting a different group of students (pre-drop out prevention) than we were.

We have hit many road blocks along the way - from being provided time to collaborate to the district leadership not being very clear with "what" the online courses will look like. For example, the science teachers as a whole, would like to have a hybrid model where students come to school for 1-2 hrs once or twice a week for lab activities. In order for a student to take an AP Biology class, they are required to have completed 17 specific labs in order to earn AP credit.

We also have struggled with how to make these courses as rigorous as the typical classroom experience.

I have so many unanswered crippling questions about creating online classes that I find myself questioning if even creating an online course is in the best interest of my students. I often have the discussion with my colleagues that if I am hesitant to include an activity with my online students then should I even include the activity for my classroom students? How does one build a community and relationships with students in an online environment? Are the students of today motivated enough to learn without the structure of a classroom environment? Am I ready for the transition from being a facilitator in the classroom to being someone who simply monitors student progress?

I keep coming back to a central question - is this what's best for students?

I originally assumed that I would create an anatomy/physiology class online, since those students are juniors and seniors and they are more experienced, motivated and disciplined than my sophomore biology kids. I was not prepared for my anatomy students' reactions when I told them what I was attempting to do.

The majority opinion of those students was absolutely not. They told me that there was no way they would take this class online because they needed to "hear my voice explain the concepts and provide the real world examples."

This was not what I anticipated. So, I polled my bio students. Some of them were interested in taking my class online, but when I pressed further to find out why, many of them responded with because then they could do it on their own time. When I asked about time management being a concern, they said that their parents would make them get their assignments (which I found funny, because their parents don't make them get their homework done now, so how would online learning be any different?).

A student yesterday told me of a former student in their class; this young man had been failing all year and when he left last week, he enrolled in an online program and made up 3 quarters of work in a matter of 5 days.  Now, does that mean the work that was happening in the brick and mortar classroom wasn't worthwhile?  Or does it mean that the online version was easier?  Or does it mean that the student excelled with the format of the online course?

On top of this, everyone around me seems to be raving about the Kahn Academy.  I do not disagree that Salman Kahn is not an educated or brilliant man, but what I will disagree with is the fact that what he has done is revolutionary.  How is posting video clips online any different than lecture or direct instruction?  Ok, so kids can watch and rewatch and rewatch his clips over and over, which is something they can't do in the regular classroom.  But they can't ask him questions either.

At this point, I feel as though I love being with students, face to face, too much to leave and transition into an environment where I don't get to see their reactions when they learn something shocking.  I know I might not belong in an online classroom, but in general, I am still undecided as to what I think about online learning. 

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